Troyk-estra (Photo © John Watson/

Troyk-estra at the CBSO Centre last night (Photo © John Watson/

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK

“It’s great to be the support act for our own gig,” said guitarist Chris Montague as he, drummer Josh Blackmore and keyboardist Kit Downes took the stage for a Troyka first half.

With a multitude of sonic combinations at their fingertips, Montague (Fender and a bunch of foot pedals) and Downes (Nord and Hammond) could choose strongly contrasting sounds, but they often opt for very similar ones, and it’s very effective indeed. For the opener these were shiny chrome tones; for Tax Return they were more bell-like. It gives them the chance to almost mimic each other at times. The effect is of a conversation between space robots – ones with superior intelligence, uncanny timing and central cores of digital funk.

Between them Blackmore is cool and deadpan, shifting accents around the kit with a casual air that belies the deep concentration that must be needed to play this music. They might be geeks – the song titles have Star Trek and Necromancer inspiration, after all – but they are generous and outgoing geeks.

It was a fine set with Crawler having a kind of urban-Frisell feel, complete with guitar-shredding climax, and Arcades like snatches of catchy pop tunes mashed into a complex overlapping structure, a preview of the new album, Ornithophobia, due out early in 2015. (The album title is an acknowledgement of Montague’s deep-seated fear of birds; I’m sure he loves Charlie Parker.)

If Troyka was the tasty hors d’ ouevres; Troyk-estra, which added four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, bass and vibes, and a conductor, was the main course. And a jolly satisfying one it was too.

Dropsy and Zebra (or Dry Ops and Braze as they appear on the Troyk-estra album recorded at last year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival; the band seems to have reverted to the original un-anagramed titles) felt a bit like the trio with a big band in support, and not fully taking advantage of integrating the two, but maybe this was intentional as a way of easing us through the transition from small band to large.

Kit Downes in singing mood (Photo © John Watson/

Kit Downes in singing mood (Photo © John Watson/

Things got much more pleasurably integrated from then on, starting with Montague’s Noonian Soong (Gain Noon Soon), my highlight of the evening. This started as a four-way interaction between the trio and Robbie Robson’s trumpet before the full brass ensemble joined in suitably spiky mode. A rich tenor solo from James Allsopp raised the temperature further and then the whole thing broke down into a hugely funky, bass trombone-led groove from Courtney Brown, the altos of Mike Chillingworth and Nadim Teimoori getting something of a ’30s swing swagger as the piece rebuilt. It’s these acknowledgements of the big band tradition while whole-heartedly revamping it for a new age that are particularly effective, and must make playing in Troyk-estra so appealing.

Downes’s The General (Elegant Her) featured trumpet electronics from new Jazzlines “Fellow” Yazz Ahmed and baritone player Sam Rapley who danced in his chair all evening, before the massed horns stacked up the chords into a monumental anthem that had me thinking of Frank Zappa. And it wasn’t all last year’s charts – a new piece from Downes, Winter Mute, got its second performance, Allsopp soaring and trombonist Tom Green tasty.

Born In The ’80s (80 Neon Births) featured a little too indulgent a period of nerdy noodling from the trio, but they are generally so strict on excesses, and certainly on longuers, that we can probably forgive them this. Chaplin (Hip Clan) provided the gentle encore wind-down, full of smashed and crunchy brass chords behind slide gutar.

Overall, a triumph and an honour to be able to hear these 18 superb musicians, under the direction of Nick Smart, playing such innovative music. Big band jazz has never sounded quite so “now”.

This concert was presented by Jazzlines.

Categories: Live review

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